stargazing on the ger

June 24, 2012 wheelerinmongolia

Dear friends and family,

It has been a long time since I’ve posted an entry, but I think that’s a result of life simply becoming more comfortable. Not to say that the fascination with life in Mongolia has gone away, but rather I’m much more able to acquiesce and flow with things that used to put me in a deep state of culture shock. For example, yesterday I ate a sheep head with my coworker’s family. And I mean that literally; they boiled the head along with other organs in a big pot, and when they brought it out, I could see the teeth and scull and stuff. But I think that a year’s worth of experience here has allowed me to just take the plunge and eat the eyes and ears and everything happily, whereas a year ago I probably would have been more hesitant and queasy.

            The spring was an incredible season. I experienced the highs of co-creating and hosting a local English TV game show where high school students competed in spelling bees, verbal challenges, reading competitions and other activities; I experienced what it’s like to walk around during a storm where your vision is entirely blocked by sweeping brown clouds of dust. Generally, there were some high emotions and low emotions (as usual), but more often then not, I felt powerful feelings of vitality.  Coming out of the Mongolian winter and walking around in warm weather and seeing things grow again sort of made me feel reborn. And doing things like traveling up north to perform at an opening ceremony for a national sports competition and playing my little Martin backpacker-guitar in front of hundreds of people made me feel a unique euphoria – something that comes about through being on the other side of the planet; never really being able to describe what’s happening but smiling at the cosmic strangeness.

            At the tail end of the spring, I went up to Darkhan to attend a Peace Corps seminar. I was lucky enough to get accepted as a trainer for the new volunteers, which will start during the second half of the summer; so during the seminar we started planning our lessons and talking about how to be successful trainers. I was sharing an apartment with five other guys who are gonna train this summer, which was a nice change of pace from a generally quieter existence in the Gobi. We all ended up getting hooked on the card game “Monopoly Deal,” and would literally play for hours after coming home from lesson planning all day. Our apartment was also equipped with its fair share of quirks and challenges. Our toilet was clogged (and as you could imagine, in a small apartment with six dudes, that can cause some problems), and our bathroom pipes were leaking. As it turns out, they were leaking through the ceiling of the apartment below us, causing our neighboring family to come upstairs and chew us out at the top of their lungs. Before we could get a plumber to come, the situation led to some makeshift duct-tape work, and some of the guys taking night shifts to replace the buckets of water filling from the pipes.

            After the seminar, three friends and I had the chance to go to Howsgol province, an area widely recognized as one of the most beautiful of Mongolia. The lake and trees were strongly reminiscent of Oregon actually. There’s one particular experience that stands out. The four of us were sitting by the lake when we heard some drumming and chanting sounds in the distance. Naturally, we followed the sound up to the top of a hill, where we saw a large, covered structure of bent-over trees, all of which were covered in “hatigs” (Mongolian prayer flags). At first unsure whether to walk away or try interacting with the people inside, we decided to just go for it. Our question, “orj boloh uu?” (may we come in?) was met with overwhelming enthusiasm. The wife of the family in the tree structure turned out to be a shaman, and they had just been doing a healing ritual for a visiting family. Her, her husband and their son see hundreds of tourists every summer because the shamanism and the fact that they own a pack of reindeer is a high point of interest, but I think it’s really rare for them to find foreigners who can speak Mongolian, so they were quite taken with us. The husband in particular loved the fact that we actually live in Mongolia and have been studying the language, and he exploded in laughter pretty much throughout all our interactions with him. He’d ask something like, “So, do you have a girlfriend?” and then no matter what our response was, “BAHAHAHAHA!” After hanging out, eating candy and drinking some milk tea, the shaman Enkhtuya invited us to stay one night with her family in their tepee. She described where she lived: “down the path 5 kilometers, then up a dirt road going into the mountains, in the woods next to two gers.” So, after we did some more hiking around the lake, coming back to find Enkhtuya the shaman was like a treasure hunt. A kid on a motorcycle helped point us in the right direction; a herder with his pack explained how many short hills to go over before cutting into the woods. We were just 4 scruffy Americans with backpacks trekking through the wild to find the shaman’s tepee.

            Before two long, we found their home, and they served us some bread with reindeer cheese and soup with reindeer meat. We were sitting outside, and the majestic creatures with huge antlers were just chilling right next to us. It was an occasion in which you frequently need to remind yourself where you are and what you’re doing. Their son, who I think was about 7 years old, served us bowl after bowl of reindeer milk tea, even after we said we were full; I think he was thrilled to be the host for his guests. He took us for a walk to show us some of the nearby nature, and kept repeating over and over, “ta nar sain! Ta nar sain huumuus baina aa!” (you guys are good! You are good people!). So stoked. My favorite part of our interactions with him was having a dance party outside with some car speakers, doing really silly moves, and then having him replicate the moves with a huge grin on his face. The night ended with us sleeping in the tepee by crackling firelight.

            The next day Nick had the idea to offer help with moving their tepee and herding their reindeer, which was an awesome suggestion. I don’t think I’ll ever forget walking along the dirt path with my buddies, holding reindeer on both sides of me. After we help them set up the branches and felt coverings, it was time to say goodbye and continue on our journey. Aside from the pure novelty of the situation, I really enjoyed becoming friends with their family and how they treated us as peers.

            There are many wonderful things to look forward to. One of my buddies from Whitman, Ben Gourlay, arrived in Mongolia at the beginning of June. Since he started his training experience living with a host family, I haven’t had a chance to speak with him directly yet, but I’m hoping he’s enjoying it and soaking it in. It’s pretty cool (and indicative of just how small a world this is) that someone from such a familiar setting like Whitman can join in on an experience so esoteric and far away. Also, this week, my brother Dan will be entering the land of the steppes. I can’t wait to show him my lifestyle, the stunning vastness, and the openhearted people I’ve met. Mongolians are generally stunned and amused by my height, so I can only imagine how they’re gonna react to Dan. It’ll be awesome.

            Other exciting news: I’ve moved into a new ger, which I love. The weather has been hot, so I’ve been climbing on top of my ger at night to lie down and watch the stars. These are good times to reflect on the challenges and struggles; but most importantly, I’ve realized that aspects of my life in Mongolia that used to be challenging don’t need to be that way anymore. There are infinite opportunities to have positive experiences in initially uncomfortable situations. Sometimes it just takes a little extra risk and willpower.

Love,

Joe

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Barbara D&hellip  | 

    Thanks again, Joe, for sharing your experiences with all of us. Love you lots.

  • 2. anne lowe&hellip  | 

    Hi Joe, mama here. Loved this entry and the wisdom at the end. You truly are becoming a world citizen, and such a good representative from the US! Love you so much.

  • 3. Sarah Lowe&hellip  | 

    Hi Joe,
    I’ve so enjoyed your wonderful writing once again. And like your mom, I appreciate the wisdom at the end of your entry. Hello to you and Dan!!
    love, Aunt Sarah

  • 4. Elan&hellip  | 

    Joe,

    This post made me laugh SOOOO hard. I mean, tears streaming from my eyes hard. When I imagine this man who was probably already laughing hysterically before he even finished asking a question–the sound I imagine him producing and the complete absurdity of the situation is just too much. Also, your comment about Mongolians’ reactions to Dan’s height! OMG, too funny!

    Your descriptions involving the Shaman and reindeer make me think of my favorite adventure video game, Zelda. I can’t believe that you get to actually BE in the video game–profound. I absolutely love the notion “It was an occasion in which you frequently need to remind yourself where you are and what you’re doing.”

    OH, thank you for this Joe!

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